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East Asia's airspace dispute turns ever uglier

Spat intensifies between China, Japan, US and now S. Korea

  • Fr William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • December 12, 2013
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China has expanded its air defense zone, ramping up a dispute with Japan that goes from bad to worse and shows no sign of abating. Observers are even thinking about the unthinkable – armed conflict between the two countries. And such conflict would not be limited to them.

As was demonstrated by their sending two B-52 bombers through the area newly claimed by China, the Americans are bound to honor their alliance with Japan in the event of conflict. And now, South Korea has expanded its own air defense identification zone in a way that overlaps the other two nations’ zones.

How did things reach this point? Though the issues that underlie the crisis have existed since at least the end of the Pacific War, until lately it has not been a cause of friction. China claimed some uninhabited islets as theirs and Japan did likewise.

In fact, the islands were privately owned by some Japanese. Rather than make an issue of it, each country simply ignored the other’s claims. However, the recent finding that there may be undersea gas fields near the islands made both countries more interested in sovereignty.

Then, one of Japan’s most divisive figures entered the picture. Shintaro Ishihara is a far-right politician who was governor of Tokyo for nearly 13 years. He has made a career of making statements that demonstrate a hyper-nationalistic attitude against foreigners both in and outside of Japan. He seems to take delight in upsetting people.

Last year, he declared that he would arrange for the Tokyo municipal government to purchase the islands from their owners in order to secure Japanese sovereignty over them. What had been a situation of "you say they’re yours, we say they’re ours, but they’re not worth arguing over" may, contrary to anyone’s wishes, become a casus belli.

The Chinese government has fostered a patriotism of resentment, emphasizing insults to the country by European and Japanese colonialists and by American "hegemony." It can be a useful way to give a common ethos to people who are ethnically diverse, who have their own mini-nationalistic tendencies and who are increasingly disillusioned with the official ideology and practice of the ruling party. Foreign insults and injustices, ancient or modern, real or imagined, are handy ways to distract people from current domestic ones.

So, it was impossible for the Chinese government to ignore Ishihara’s move without losing face among the people of China. (I doubt anyone outside China and a few Japanese hyper-nationalists care in the least.) Whether the Chinese leadership cares about the islets or not, it cannot appear to acquiesce in an insult from Japan, a historic enemy. Acquiescence could provoke an unmanageable domestic reaction.

Japan, too, is faced with the problem of loss of face. The country has slipped from the time when "Japan Is Number One" was the world’s mantra. But, just as Japan seemed poised to rival the US at least economically, the bubble burst.

Japanese have been humiliated to see their country become a has-been on the world stage. Especially galling is that their place has been taken by China, a country that has always been seen as a backward neighbor. The Japanese government is forced to put up a show of opposition to China in order to head off domestic accusations of weakness on the world stage.

So, we have two countries that probably wish the islands would just sink into the sea and end the dispute, but which until that day are forced to save face by escalating their mutual blustering. It may all be a game.

The worrying point, though, it that though the chief players may know they are playing a game while trying to find some way to minimize the loss of face on either side, their pawns might not be aware that it’s a game. 

In the 1930s, Japanese troops in China intoxicated by hyper-nationalistic claims and against the wishes of their government provoked incidents that eventuated in war throughout Asia. This time, it is more likely to be some Chinese pilot raised on the patriotism of resentment who will fire an air-to-air missile and launch disaster for the world.

I hope that when Chinese leaders scramble their fighter jets because some Japanese (or American or Korean) aircraft has "violated" their air defense zone, they remember to remove the missiles from under the wings.

Fr William Grimm is publisher of ucanews.com based in Tokyo.

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